A cloud of smoke spilled through the aft hatch of the drop ship. In rapid succession, Captain Wilkes unlatched the harness from her navy flight suit, grabbed her assault rifle and emerged from the transport into the unknown.
Infinite darkness filled the world. The gift of vision came in fleeting gasps--when the smoke, ash and dust that choked an unwilling sun drifted and closed. Thereupon the impact crater laid the survivors, and the dead.
A score of Raven drop ships laid wounded, wrecked agape on broken ground where they spilled their entrails. Brave men and women at arms lay strewn across a parade of broken glass and twisted steel.
"Anyone," she spoke into her microphone, "please, respond."
No one answered her.
She saw one man emerge from a tangle of hissing coolant pipes, his arm at an obtuse angle. Another man quietly marched toward her through the smoke, a wedge of steel bedded into his abdomen. Blood clothed the wicked metal fang, spilled like a faucet. He shakily tried to salute...then fell to the ground.
No one else survived the drop.
A chill silence underwrote the scene--rend the relief that she was alive into despair and unease. She met the wounded shoulder and helped him to the ground. Before she set to find the straightest spar of steel to prop his arm, something else underwrote the silence.
The men and women who fought the plague said it was the calling. Cruel lips in the dark that mouthed bloody fates of death and fates worse than death, written beneath the silence. What the voice whispered could not be understood, not with human ears. She gave the solder her sidearm--a pistol fit for muggings.
The smoke drifted over the sun, imposed artificial night. The calling whispered, closer now, and icy fingers folded about her heart. A tightness in her breath, a sliver of pain between her shoulders, as the richest hazel of eyes strained with despair to see through a cloak of night.
The darkness lifted.
The silhouettes emerged along the lip of the impact crater. They appeared like men, but they were not human, not from here. There, in pale sunlight, the shameful creatures ambled forward: horrid, misshapen. There were eight, then sixteen, sixty-four...
The darkness closed.
"We're going to die, aren't we?"
Captain Wilkes kneeled by the solder, took his hand. Death was inevitable, she knew. In girlhood, a lifetime ago when the sky was blue and the sun burned with vigor, she learned the brevity of life.
"We'll be okay," she lied to him. She heard the creak of wreckage, the crunch of sand beneath a thousand feet. She heard death whisper, ever close at her ear. "We'll be okay."
The air rumbled--and then a sudden white flash from the dark.
"F**k this", the soldier aimed and fired his pistol.
Captain Wilkes took his uninjured hand and jumped, rolled to the side as boiling ectoplasm splashed across the ground they'd been on. In her leap she noticed the soldier's heft cut away, and upon rising only saw a hand in her grip.
Beneath that, twin spars of bone.
The rest of him lay melting in a pool of ectoplasm. Between her on spear and the distressing sight, Captain Wilkes' feet carried her backwards almost on their own will. A shrill scream then ripped through the silence like an assassin's blade. The calling was gone. They gave chase--grotesque, unnatural.
She opened fire, backpedalling as she went, towards the trench where the sheared half of a drop ship sliced a shallow canyon into the desert. Firing with one hand she funneled them into the pass-a good distance, one hand palmed over a grenade. She tossed it chest high so it buried deeply into their ranks.
Thunder erupted among the advancing horde, slicked the thin canyon walls dark red. In the momentary lull, Captain Wilkes hit the reloading latch and slapped in a fresh clip. There, upon wounded knees and broken legs, they stood and took flight after, mangled limbs tearing free. Captain Wilkes poured gunfire into the wounded front line, stretched them thin.
That was always the tactic against the plague: run, stretch its numbers thin across a star system or a battlefield, then counter-attack. But how much longer could they keep running? Soon there would be nowhere left to run, no time to plan, no resources, and nowhere left to hide.
Perhaps realizing her ruse, some took to the air in great leaps. A great balance of them met the curved bayonet slung beneath her assault rifle: sixteen inches of brutal gutting tungsten carbide.
Rend in twine, they laid upon the ground, clawed at her boots as she poured a storm of gunfire down range. The calling whispered to her beneath the violence, in the language of souls.
He was right, there are too many.
Stinking hot fumes from the gun seared her lungs, blinded her. She threw another grenade while she backed away from the smoke and reloaded. The gun fired and then clacked twice--jammed.
You will die here.
Many more funneled into the pass before her: limbs flailing, spilling down on either side of the small ravine in front of her. With a furious war cry she turned the rifle on its head, wielded it like a great axe--but then something else exploded through their front line.
A blur of midnight, at least two heads taller than the others, vicious.
It closed the distance to Captain Wilkes, and in precisely one second a cold armored palm caught her wrist, ripped the improvised axe from her grip and flung her five meters farther back the ravine.
Captain Wilkes looked up and caught a brief glimpse before it moved. Its height threatened seven feet, heavy set in midnight armor with crimson highlights, force shields aglow in the blighted sunlight. Fashioned down the left arm were bold red letters in a blocky font: 003 - T.Y.R.
Captain Wilkes crawled away, eyes wide.
The first creature to reach Unit 03 did so well before the others. In powerful arms, the savage axe came up harshly and crashed home between the legs. Callused loins and pelvic bone sundered, spilled entrails as the severed halves were cast sunward by the force.
With a sharp twist Unit 03 turned and stepped into another's too-wide sprint. The smaller creature splattered against the armor and bounced back to the ground. The unforgiving axe came crashing down.
Unit 03 wrenched the curved bayonet from the gun; the blade flashed across the ravine in a deadly arc. It cleaved though their ranks and came to rest when it bedded deep into a coolant pipe, fifty meters behind one soldier's smoldering skeleton.
A hand blurred past the reloading latch, the jammed shell flew clear. A fresh clip slammed home and in the same instant the free hand palmed a grenade--minus the pin.
When Unit 03 threw the grenade, the metal casing ate through a pair of knees like a shotgun blast, and the gunfire came simultaneously with the explosion, and for two minutes the only break came as the thunder of a grenade while she cycled through five ammo clips...until nothing down range moved.
The voice of a young woman, pure: "threat incapacitated."
"Good work," Captain Wilkes stood, rubbed at the ache in her wrist. She led a quick pace from the ravine, nervous. "We have to get out of here, find transport and locate the rally point."